I recall shopping at my local grocery store back in late March when the seriousness of the coronavirus was first becoming obvious to everyone. I pushed my cart into the paper products aisle to discover: no toilet paper! Another shopper was already surveying the empty shelves. He looked at me and asked, in disbelief, “What does toilet paper have to do with the pandemic?”
Later I read an article by a psychologist explaining that hoarding is a predictable reaction to crises. When we feel our control slipping, when our comforts and routines are threatened, we look for a way to shore up our sense of order. Toilet paper is a necessity that keeps. It’s a satisfyingly bulky, substantial-looking cargo. By stocking up, we ensure that we’ve mastered at least one small area of life. With a closet full of rolls, we have one less thing to worry about.
The hoarder can feel like a winner, a hero of the bathroom.
I couldn’t really identify with the hoarding urge until recently, when diet cola was in short supply. Suddenly, it was gone, and no one knew when stores would restock it. I won’t say who, but someone in my house drinks a lot of diet cola. I had never before viewed myself as the provider, but with the diet cola running low, I was a little bit panicked. Okay, so this wasn't an earthshaking issue; but you have to think of it as the gateway to much worse events. After all, if the world runs out of diet cola, what’s next? Water? Electricity? Chocolate?
My grandmother stayed with us during a period of my childhood. Her foundational years of motherhood occurred during the Great Depression, and she still had the habit of saving bread wrappers, rubber bands, buttons, anything. Everything. It was automatic, compulsive, and also a kind of moral imperative. Waste not, want not. You can’t know what tomorrow may bring—or not bring. I thought of her again when the diet cola returned to grocery store shelves and I found myself stocking up, loading my cart with an enormous quantity of the stuff—so much that, with our other groceries, I had difficulty fitting it all into the car. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that I was providing for the future, taking charge of so many tomorrows. At home, stacking my little Fort Knox-like pile of diet cola, I felt more secure, more a master of my immediate world.
We want, of course, to stockpile days, to keep our kids and our elders safe, to spread our sense of security forward into the future. Part of that almost necessary make-believe is our sense of ourselves as heroes and survivors, farsighted and lucky. We don’t want to be left out in the cold. And don’t we also feel a second instinct: to reach out to one another, as our grandparents and great-grandparents did during the Great Depression and the world wars? To act as a team? To make noble sacrifices? To raise ourselves up as a diverse nation? Decades pass during which we aren’t called on (or in which many of us can’t hear the call) to pull together. It feels like America is launching now on one of those other kinds of decades, years of hardship and (we have to aim for this) heroism. These times may be calling us to be not just survivors, but also heroes, the kind of people later generations will look back on and call great.
Music: "Heroes" by David Bowie